The tragedy of ’42

On the 6th September, 1942 battalions of the Irish Army were carrying out manoeuvres in Fermoy as part of major preparations for World War. 

The Blackwater manoeuvres took place during The Emergency period in Ireland and it was the largest training exercise undertaken by the Irish Army, involving over 20,000 troops from August 17th until 27th September 1942.

During this particular manoeuvre on the 6th, the ‘south army’ were camped on Corrin and they saw the ‘north army approaching Fermoy. The ‘south army’ ran down from Corrin to defend the town and soon after, disaster struck.

Standing watching the training regime from outside The Grand Hotel was Tom Cavanagh (of Cavanagh’s Garage), a little 11 year old boy who was celebrating his birthday that same day, and he can still remember the tragedy that unfolded in front of him.

A view of the manoeuvres across the River Blackwater in 1942.

About ten soldiers from the ‘south army’ were instructed to cross the river and so they tied a rope onto each other, with the end of the rope being held by a soldier standing on Ashe Quay. However, as far as Tom can remember, the soldier lost his grip on the rope.

Lieutenant Thomas Ryan from Cashel, who was one of the men in the water, tried to swim and reach the other side. Lieutenant Ryan, who was the leader of the ‘south army’ was a good swimmer and almost reached the other side. As he tried to grasp at a branch of a tree in the area which is now the town park, it is believed that his hand got stuck in his army belt and so he couldn’t scramble to safety.

The plaque erected in honour of the men who died during the Blackwater manoeuvres of 1942. (Pic John O’Connell)

Another soldier who was struggling in the river was Sergeant John McElligott from Listowel. He got into difficulty just a few yards from the Ashe Quay side and so a garda (probably Tom Sexton) travelled down river in a boat and nearly saved McElligott holding onto him for a long time but then, McElligott slipped from his grasp.

Local man Jimmy Coleman, known as ‘Old Sport’, was also in the water that day, trying to get the soldiers to safety. He managed to save one of the men and subsequently received an award from the Humane Society of Ireland for his efforts.

A plaque to both Lieutenant Thomas Ryan and Sergeant John McElligott, who were both members of the 12th Battalion, is situated on Barnane Walk in Fermoy and is a constant reminder of that tragic day which is remembered by many in the town.

Having seen this tragedy unfold in front of him as a young boy of 11, Tom Cavanagh was greatly affected by the drowning. Due to the magnitude of the incident, Mr Cavanagh still remembers every moment, 76 years later.